How Are Those Writing Resolutions Coming?

We are now approximately one month into 2021. It’s a good time to take a moment and assess how well your New Year’s resolutions are coming. On January 1, everybody talks about them, but then we all seem to forget very quickly. How often do we follow up on those things?

Because I announced my resolutions publicly this year, it only seems fair to tell you all how I am doing. My first resolution was to write at least 500 words of fiction a day until the first draft of the current manuscript is complete. So far, I have managed (somehow) to keep up with that. John and my latest fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son just passed the 80,000 word mark and is in the home stretch. We are hoping to have the first draft finished by March. An artist friend is currently creating the book cover.

My second resolution was to learn more about book marketing. I haven’t done as much of that yet as I should. I’ve signed up for some KDP classes on Amazon, but I don’t feel like I have a real understanding of marketing yet.

My third resolution was to develop a marketing strategy for the new book. Sadly, I am falling down on this one so far. How to market a novel without spending a ton of money is still a mystery. Writing is easy for me; marketing is not.

As a side note, I am pleased to announce that John and I made enough on our book sales in 2020 to be required to report the income on our taxes. WooHoo! Though I must confess that the IRS sets a low bar for what must be reported — a very low bar — so the need to report is not quite as cool as it first seems. But it will still be exciting to report income as authors. We’re professionals now!

My fourth resolution was to come up with an outline for the next book and to start writing it by June. I’ve already started playing with story ideas, and I should be able to meet this goal.

And finally, I resolved to keep writing this blog every Friday. So far so good!

Talk to you next week!

-Susan 1/29/2021

Fantasy Novels and the Real World

We have an interesting power as fantasy authors. We can invent a unique society that operates according to the rules we choose. As long as the world we write about remains consistent with its own rules and is familiar enough to be engaging to our readers, we have a lot of latitude. Unlike other genres, we don’t necessarily have to follow scientific laws or real life conventions. Obviously, certain types of fantasy, such as urban fantasy or historical fantasy, may be bound within the strictures of the real world, but even then, the fantasy author can bend those conventions to suit the story.

At the same time, however, fantasy authors are themselves people who live in the real world, and our experiences undoubtedly influence what we write. The relationships we have, the people we meet, and the milestones of our individual lives shape our writing, just as they do for authors in any other genre. Likewise, the concepts of the real world — love, faith, friendship, hope, loyalty, determination, war, peace, etc. — not only apply to fantasy stories, they are critical to help make the otherworldly setting seem realistic.

As a fantasy reader and writer, one of my primary motivations has always been escape from the real world. My goal in writing fantasy fiction is to entertain, not to make commentary on society or politics. Like Professor Tolkien, I tend to dislike allegory. I prefer fantasy universes that exist on their own merits and are not just our world with the serial numbers scratched off. (Incidentally, this comment does not apply to fantasy stories that are supposed to take place in the real world, such as historical fantasy or urban fantasy. Those are fine. Instead, I’m talking about the stories that purport to be set in an entirely different world from ours, but really aren’t.)

But even for fantasy authors like me who try not to write about the real world, I wonder how much our writing is subconsciously influenced by the events occurring around us. The unprecedented year we just collectively experienced will likely leave its mark on us all. The extent to which that affects our fantasy stories, either on a conscious or subconscious level, remains to be seen. After “sheltering at home” for so long, I know that I will forever think differently about stories involving a princess locked in a tower with only a magic mirror to let her view the world outside.

-Susan 1/8/2021

Update on Current Book Projects

Concept sketch for a possible cover of Prophecy’s Malignant Son (planned for publication in Spring 2021)

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the current writing projects, so this seems like a good time. John and I are still hard at work on our latest fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son. We have over 50,000 words written at this point, and we are still hoping for publication some time in early 2021. The novel will probably end up longer than the 70,000 words I had originally intended, but it will be a complete story with no cliff-hanger endings. Any sequels will be separate stories (although they will probably involve some of the same characters).

So far, the comments from the Emerald Cove writing critique group on the manuscript have been favorable. The other authors have suggested a few tweaks here and there, all of which will help the final story. (We are fortunate to have such a great critique group to help us!)

A couple of weeks back, I started playing with some ideas for the cover. The rough sketch above represents one of the ideas I had. I am currently talking with an artist friend about possible cover art. For those of you who read 60th Hour, you know the cover art on that book was pretty abstract. To produce it, I played with variations on a photograph I had taken of a state capital rotunda. That was fine for the initial edition of our first published book, but this time I’d like something a little more “fantasy” looking. Depending on how things go with the cover for Prophecy’s Malignant Son, I may also commission some cover art when we put out the revised edition of 60th Hour (to correct all those little formatting oddities that I mentioned in an earlier blog post).

We held our latest Emerald Cove meeting via Zoom on Wednesday night. Things are progressing with the shared universe anthology. All the stories are now complete and have had their initial reviews by the group. We just need to make revisions and finalize them. At a prior meeting, Sue gave us a peek at her partially completed cover art, and it looks amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

We are still in the process of writing the short stories for the Haunted! anthology. John and I have finished our contribution, but plan to revise one section of our story based on the comments we received from the group.

I hope you are all having a safe and healthy holiday season!

-Susan 12/4/2020

Coming in Spring 2021: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: What happens when a prophecy goes wrong . . . very wrong?

Writing and RPGs

Think back to the year 1977. It was a great year to be a science-fiction/fantasy fan in San Diego. The original Star Wars opened in May 1977. The Silmarillion was finally published. The Star Trek Association for Revival met at San Diego State on the third Saturday of every month and even put on its own science fiction convention.

And, most importantly for today’s blog post, one of my good friends who attended UCSD learned about a new type of game — a cooperative, storytelling game, played with paper and dice, in which the players create fantasy characters to explore dungeons, fight monsters, and get treasure. My friend played in a few games, bought the rule books, and started running games for the rest of us.

Although I do not remember the date of our first D&D game, I remember how I felt. Playing D&D was like being inside a fantasy novel. The original version of D&D was very much about story — many of the game mechanics from the later editions did not exist at the time, and a lot of the game play was based on what worked for the plot.

Over the years, I have played in many types of role-playing games using all sorts of different rules systems. However, when I started running my own rpgs, I realized their value for me as a writer.

A fantasy author creates a universe, comes up with a plotline, develops backgrounds for characters, and then tells what happens to those characters. A game master can go one step further. He or she can hand those characters to friends and then watch the story unfold based on the actions of the players. As an author, it is amazing to watch the characters you created come to life right in front of you, doing things you never would have expected.

Running rpgs can provide interesting insights into how people react to certain situations. Will the players rescue the damsel in distress and follow her on a quest or will they lock her up because they have been betrayed so many times in the game that they no longer trust anyone? What are the qualities of characters that make players like or dislike them? Are there plot circumstances that always elicit the same response from the players no matter what their character backgrounds might be?

It is particularly fascinating to run the same game for two different groups of players to see what similarities and differences occur as the plot unfolds. Each player brings his or her life experiences to the gaming table. A small difference in personality of one character can have a huge impact on story events.

It is no surprise that published novels and even television series have been based, in part, on role-playing games. The gaming table can provide a wealth of story ideas.

At times, I’ve even thought that writing a novel is like role-playing without the other players.

-Susan 11/27/20

p.s. My D&D group from the 1970’s recently had a reunion via Zoom. Our original game master started running a game for us using the old D&D rules. It’s been great fun and we even have the next generation of gamers joining us (the children of some of the players).

Dictation vs. Typing

“No! Don’t hurt my fingers! I’m a writer.”

Two weeks ago, I had minor surgery on one of my fingers. The surgery was very minor and the cut is healing up nicely now, so no worries. However, for the first few days after the surgery, I had to type with a huge bandage getting in the way and a finger that I couldn’t bend. I managed to keep up with my daily fiction writing, but it wasn’t easy.

John suggested that I try one of the dictation programs that automatically types the words as you say them. I am considering it, but I know that dictation can be a little tricky. Over the years, I have found that it is quicker and easier for me to put my thoughts on paper by typing than it is by speaking.

Yes, that sounds counterintuitive. We all speak faster than we type. That is particularly true for me, because I am not a very good typist. My dad wanted me to take a typing class in my first year of high school. In the spirit of youthful rebellion, I took Latin instead. (What? It’s rebellion. Literary geeks have to be rebels somehow.)

My history with dictation goes back a long way. When I entered the workforce in the mid-1980’s, we did not have computers at our desks. Instead, I had to dictate documents into a mini-cassette tape recorder. When I finished, I brought the cassette to the computer department where one of the computer operators transcribed it, printed a paper copy, and gave it back to me for proofreading.

During those days, I quickly learned that dictating is a different skill from composing at the keyboard or typewriter. You had to speak slowly and clearly so the transcriber could understand what you said. It also took longer for me to form sentences and paragraphs in my head when dictating than it did when typing. I have no idea why that is true, but my thoughts seem to flow more easily when I type the words. Eventually, I mastered the skill of dictation, but it took a while. By the early 1990’s, we all had computers at our desks, so dictation became a thing of the past.

About ten years ago, the office where I worked purchased dictation software for any employee that wanted it. I assumed it would be easy for me to use, because I had dictated documents in the past (getting back on a bicycle and all that). It turned out to be a little harder than I thought. It took some adjustment for me to learn how to use the software and for the software to “learn” how I spoke. I also had to find the right speed for the dictation.

More importantly, I discovered that I had the same problem with composing sentences in my head that I had experienced in the 1980’s. If anything, the adjustment to dictation was harder in the 2010’s, because I had grown used to typing everything and composing each document as I typed. The software worked best when I was dictating a quote from already written material; it was much more difficult when I had to think of what to say and how to say it.

Since my retirement five years ago, I have not done any dictating. I’m sure the software quality has improved during that time and that dictation programs are easier to use than ever. However, I am still uncertain whether to purchase the software for my fiction writing, because I am not sure if it will speed up my writing or slow it down. I may try it anyway, to save my fingers from “wear and tear” and avoid repetitive motion injuries. If I decide to buy it, I’ll let you know how things turn out.

-Susan 10/30/20

One Method to Overcome Writing Malaise

Why is it hard for many of us to write fiction during this pandemic? Several of my author friends have expressed difficulty getting motivated right now. One friend, who is normally a prolific writer, told me that he has not written anything since April. At our most recent Emerald Cove writer’s group meeting (via Zoom) this past Wednesday, only two of us provided stories or chapters for the others to review.

I’m not a psychologist, so I can only guess why the pandemic is affecting us this way. I suspect part of the problem may be that we’re in front of screens all day. We’re now about seven months into the shelter-at-home requirements (seven very long months). Many of us are zoomed out, videoed out, and really tired of staring at our electronic devices.

Prior to the pandemic, most of my screen time involved work, writing, and computer/video games. I had barely scratched the surface of social media, sent only occasional text messages, and had never attended a meeting via Zoom. Aside from a handful of online friends, most of my pre-COVID social contact with people occurred in live settings: meetings, club activities, sewing circles, travel, church, table-top rpgs, dining out, going to movies, etc.

Writing used to be a break from all that hustle and bustle of real-life. In the current environment, however, writing is just another activity done in front of an electronic device, amidst a host of activities done in front of those devices. Unless you are one of those rare individuals who still writes manuscripts by hand and/or uses an old-fashioned typewriter, writing during the pandemic means yet more screen time, during a day already filled with way too much screen time.

There is, alas, no solution to the screen time problem at the moment (or, at least, none that I know). Our electronic devices are critical for our social events (and our sanity!) right now. Most of us can’t get away from them. Certainly, we can and should take breaks from our electronics, by going for walks, exercising, reading non-digital versions of newspapers/books/magazines, and engaging in homey activities like cooking and gardening. None of those activities, however, involves the physical act of writing fiction. When we sit down to write, we are immediately back at the screen once more.

So, what do we do about our writing? How can we get motivated in this environment? Here is one suggestion that has helped me during this past month: try writing something entirely new.

As those of you who follow my blog may remember, I recently spent a lot of time debating on whether to revise an old novel that I first wrote about twenty years ago. I’ve tried several times since then to get back to it without success. I just can’t get motivated to begin the project. I feel like I am staring up at a mountain.

So I started something new instead. A brand new novel not based on any prior stories I’ve ever written. It’s set in an entirely new fantasy universe, with completely new characters and plotlines. Suddenly, I’m excited again. I want to spend time writing it. In fact, I’ve written almost 17,000 words in the last three weeks. That is, by far, the most I have written in such a short time since the pandemic began.

I don’t know if trying something new will work for you. But if you are suffering from shelter-at-home malaise and you just can’t bring yourself to continue with the next chapter of your current project, it couldn’t hurt to try. Your old project will still be there waiting for you when you return. During this crazy world of 2020, writing anything is better than nothing.

I wish all of you the best with your writing!

Susan 10/9/20

Our Next Exclamation Mark Anthology

When Emerald Cove decided to try its first themed anthology (Kidnapped!), I expected all our stories to be similar. After all, we were writing on the same theme. To my mind, kidnapping stories followed a standard structure: a person is abducted, often for ransom, and the story revolves around what happens after that. Furthermore, we were all science-fiction/fantasy fans, so it was likely (although not required) that our stories would fall somewhere within that genre.

The stories did indeed fall within the realm of speculative fiction, but beyond that, all similarities ended. Danny opted for modern day superheroes. Sue Dawe, who is one of the kindest and most joyful people I know, surprised us all by writing a frightening, alien-abduction story. Stephanie gave us an amusing look at the twisted psychology of an author. John and I came up with a light-hearted take on medieval highwaymen (and yes, John was involved — see my earlier blog post about what is missing from Lord Larrin’s Daughter.) Jefferson…well, there is only one Jefferson Putnam Swycaffer in the entire universe, and his stories are as unique and interesting as he is. (Just teasing, Jefferson! He and I have been friends for over 40 years, and he is a great guy and an amazing writer.)

Emerald Cove’s second exclamation mark anthology was Stolen!

In case you are wondering, we don’t really call them that. “Exclamation mark anthology” is way too long to say in casual conversation. We originally added the exclamation mark to the end of Kidnapped! because we hoped it would differentiate the book from other works with that same name. We foolishly forgot that internet search engines ignore punctuation. By the time Stolen! came out, the exclamation mark had become our “thing” so we decided to keep using it.

When we started working on Stolen!, I was expecting variation in our stories, and that was exactly what happened. Not only were there stylistic differences within the science-fiction/fantasy genre, but there were also variations on the types of things that could be stolen. The stories involved the theft of things as diverse as gender identity, artistic creativity, and souls.

And a fish. One mustn’t forget the pilfered fish.

So now Emerald Cove is working on its third exclamation mark anthology: Haunted! As I mentioned in a prior blog post, all of us at the Cove had been in a writing slump since the pandemic’s shelter-in-place started. Now, thanks to the wonders of Zoom critique meetings, we are back to writing. In anticipation of our next Zoom critique meeting on August 12, we are already starting to place full and partial manuscripts into OneDrive for review. I can’t wait to see what variations on the theme we all come up with this time.

Susan 7/31/20